When Extinction Rebellion opens up to spirituality

At the end of the small dirt road stretches a vast meadow. Dotted with white flowers, it offers a panorama of the hillsides, fields and forests. As the sun rises on this land of Côte-d’Or still asleep, the wind seems to bring some hints of musical notes.

By listening, we go up the thread to a stone barn. About thirty people gathered there this morning of Sunday July 24, 2022 for a time of prayer and meditation. On the stage, three young women accompany the songs on guitar and violin. All are Christians. One is also an activist with Extinction Rebellion France.

A movement inspired by Joanna Macy’s “deep ecology”

If these people met for a weekend at Goshen, Ferme de la Chaux, a Christian and alternative eco-place, in La Bussières-sur-Ouche (Côte-d’Or), near Dijon, it is at the call ofExtinction Rebellion (or XR) to reflect on actions combining ecology and spirituality. Because it is one of the originalities of this environmental movement born in the United Kingdom in 2018.

From its creation, strongly influenced by “deep ecology” developed by the American Joanna Macy, it devotes one of its 10 founding principles to the “regenerative culture”, a system that wants to take care of the relationships between humans and the living world by “ceremonies, prayers (spontaneous and not dogmatic) as a means of aspiring to what is beyond us”.

Born three months ago, XR Spi, the branch devoted to spirituality of XR France, wanted to make this meeting in Goshen an opportunity to involve new activists within the movement. Its founding act had marked the spirits during the occupation of the Porte Saint-Denis in Paris during the Easter weekend and between the presidential rounds: an improvised Eucharist on the asphalt had then gathered around fifty people. , Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Atheists and seekers.

A cultural context that is a source of tension

In France, no similar movement, be it Alternatiba, Friends of the Earth or Uprisings of the Earth, addresses the spiritual question. “It is linked to the history of struggles in France which are refractory to spirituality and have an always rational and materialistic approach, says Glise, XR activist for two years and co-founder of XR Spi. This is specific to France, because there is for example an XR Christians and an XR Muslims in the United Kingdom. »

This is why throughout the various weekend workshops, great caution was exercised over the use of the words “God”, “Creation” or “prayers”. The songs for this Sunday morning, certainly from the repertoire of the Christian community of Taizé, have all been chosen for their universal messages and fraternal love. A fear of offending other denominations and non-believers which weighed like a sword of Damocles above each of the participants throughout the weekend. But this tension is not new for the latter, mostly Christian, who feel it on a daily basis.

Elisabeth Flichy, member of Christians United for the Earth since 2014, and came out of curiosity to this weekend, has long felt uncomfortable in her commitment, labeled “gaucho” by members of her parish community and “right-wing, pro-Demonstration for all” by environmental activists. Even within XR France, where regenerative culture is nevertheless inscribed in its DNA, today talking about spirituality remains taboo. At the local group in Poitiers, Glise remembers having revealed her Catholic faith in the course of a conversation and thus allowed other militants to make their denominational “coming out”.

Obvious convergences

“At XR France, we still have too much of a culture of action and not enough self-transformation, underlines Séraphin, one of the initiators of XR Spi. Yet spirituality can provide solutions. » These needs are confirmed by the testimonies of several XR activists, believers or not, suffering from eco-anxiety and inner anger. The contribution of XR Spi would offer support to better live their commitment and better channel negative energies.

Especially since the texts or the commitments of spiritual personalities offer innumerable resources to extricate oneself from this malaise: Saint Francis of Assisi and brotherly love for all living beings, the non-violent support of Lanza del Vasto to the peasants on the Larzac plateau, the founding of Greenpeace by Quakers, the encyclical Laudato si’, of Pope Francis, or the committed Buddhism of the Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hanh…

Some participants even find in these references the roots of their radicalism. Emily (his first name has been changed), student in Protestant theology and employee of an environmental association, found herself confronted by police violence through her commitments: “Having had friends who ended up in police custody allowed me to put the arrest of Jesus into perspective. » Olivier Tempéreau, of the Christian Words on Ecology group in the diocese of Nantes, several of whose members had taken a stand against the Notre-Dame-des-Landes project, sees in Christianity and its message of love a anarchist utopia.

Actions to build

Beyond the theological debates, workshops also invite participants to propose militant and spiritual actions. Faced with the need to move religious institutions that are too conservative for their taste, many participants wish to raise awareness in their own communities, even to challenge their hierarchies directly. “The actions of XR Spi must change the mentality of the people of the Church, confirms Seraphin. But there is also an aridity of spirituality among activists so we need institutions to talk about love at XR. »

The idea of ​​a time of prayer before each action was also much debated, especially with the fear of conveying a sectarian image. Faced with the psychological distress of some activists, it has been proposed to appoint “chaplains” to the places of struggle, even if the right term remains to be found to suit all faiths and atheists.

Beyond confessions and social classes

Beyond staying on this crest line between secularism and spirituality, XR Spi wants to involve other faiths. The small downside of the weekend is the low proportion of non-Christians among the participants with some Buddhists and atheists. The Muslims encountered at the Porte Saint-Denis could not free themselves.

According to Seraphin and Church (their first names have been changed), who cautiously put forward hypotheses, the absence of Muslims is linked to their disadvantaged social origin. “But this is a problem for all of XR France, which unfortunately remains a movement of white people with higher education and who can devote time to activism”, they acknowledge. In addition to denominational barriers, there is therefore a social brake in XR’s desire to mobilize. “Our objective is to challenge religious communities, to find relays, however, add the two young activists. Spirituality can be a gateway to breaking this class struggle and uniting everyone around ecology. »

For a first weekend of meetings organized by XR Spi, the objectives of the organizers were generally achieved. “We didn’t talk about energy or CO2 at all, but more about a story to build”, Seraphin rejoices. The contribution of spirituality finds all its relevance here: completing the materialist approach with the imaginary to redefine our relationship to the world and to nature. Like this chalk message left in Goshen’s path by XR activists: “To disobey is to love. To love is to disobey. »

When Extinction Rebellion opens up to spirituality